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RV industry looks again to Louisville

This week marks the 50th year of the RV Industry Association annual show in Louisville, and while the show has reduced in prominence, it's still a huge display of Elkhart County entrepreneurship and manufacturing know-how.
Justin Leighty
Posted on Nov. 26, 2012 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated on Nov. 26, 2012 at 5:12 a.m.

GOSHEN — Thousands of RV dealers will meet with thousands of RV manufacturers, suppliers and aftermarket producers in Louisville, Ky., this week for the 50th annual National RV Trade Show put on by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association.

Since Elkhart County is the undisputed manufacturing hub of the North American RV industry, with up to 83 percent of all RVs manufactured here, according to the RVIA, there will be a large local presence at the show.

ON DISPLAY THIS WEEK

“Our 50th annual trade show is a testament to both our industry’s strength, as well as evidence of the enduring appeal of the RV lifestyle,” said RVIA President Richard Coon.

“This show brings the industry together in one place where attendees can see the best that our entire industry has to offer, meet with each other, conduct business and develop the relationships that drive the innovation that has kept RVs relevant with the American people for decades,” Coon said in a written announcement.

There will be 63 manufacturers and 222 suppliers with exhibits at the Kentucky Exposition Center Tuesday through Thursday, and they all have a variety of refreshed and new products to display.

“There will be people from around the world there, Europe, Asia,” said Sid Johnson, spokesman for Jayco.

Matt Zimmerman, Keystone president, said, “We’re pretty excited about what we’re taking to the show in terms of product. We expect good attendance.”

Doug Gaeddert of Forest River, who’s serving as RVIA chairman this year, said Forest River’s companies will have four displays with more square footage this year and new models.

“It’s interesting to see how many foreign attendees there are at Louisville,” Gaeddert said. “It’s a good indication of just how popular the RV industry is around the globe,” he said.

Newmar will roll out a new online training program for retail sales people. “Newmar’s objective was to develop a new standard in product training in the RV industry that embraces the salesperson new to selling Newmar product, while still challenging the seasoned Newmar sales professional,” said John Sammut, Newmar’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Starting Monday, several local companies will be honored by the RV Dealers Association with their Quality Circle Awards for dealer satisfaction.

Area companies CrossRoads, Forest River, Heartland, Jayco, Keystone, KZ and Entegra will all be honored, along with Airstream, Lance, Prime Time, Triple E, Pleasure-Way, Tiffin and Winnebago/Itasca/ERA, according to the RVDA.

THE SHOW’S CHANGING ROLE

It’s impossible to have a conversation with RV industry insiders about Louisville without the September RV Open House Week coming up. This year was the fifth year for the impromptu event which has grown to huge proportions for the industry.

With manufacturers showing off new-model-year improvements to dealers for the first time that week, things have changed for the Louisville show.

“It used to be the Super Bowl of all shows, Louisville. It’s no longer that,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to minimize it,” he said.

“It’s hard to say, as open house continues to grow, what part does Louisville play,” said Zimmerman. It used to be that “Louisville cleaned up your fall. We don’t need Louisville to do that anymore,” he said.

Johnson said the show is “a pretty big image thing,” drawing in international attention, but “we, the Jayco companies, do not use the show as a major order-writing show.”

That’s a big change brought about, at least in part, by the open houses. “Whatever we get now is sort of like icing on the cake,” Johnson said, though he acknowledged that several years ago, the Louisville show was the cake.

“Louisville is less important to us today than it was seven or eight years ago,” he said. Part of that is because of an increase in manufacturing lead times, he said, but part of it is because of the open houses, he said. At this point he doesn’t think the open houses threaten the Louisville show, but they could in the future.

Gaeddert said he doesn’t view the open houses — pioneered by Forest River — as a threat. The open houses come right after the show in Hershey, Pa., which is geared for consumers. Manufacturers can take information from consumers in Hershey and then from dealers during the open houses to come up with the final designs. “It’s really turned into a cool sequence of events,” he said. “Louisville is where you end up with a little more polish on the gem.”

He also said, “it’s not drastically different to the industry than it was five years ago,” The RV industry retains a relatively friendly feel, and the show “is a social gathering of sorts. This is a sociable, small industry,” he said.

While open houses attract existing dealers to the manufacturers’ displays, Louisville allows manufacturers to have more exposure to possible new dealers, Gaeddert said. “It’s kind of like fishing from two different ponds.”

Zimmerman said that even with the changing fall dynamic,” Louisville is still very important. We always hold something back and we debut new innovations at Louisville, as well.”

The RVIA considered changing the date for 2014, but earlier this year announced that the Louisville show will continue at the same time and place for the next few years.

OUTLOOK FOR THE RV INDUSTRY

While the industry was hit hard a few years ago, everyone’s going into this week’s show with optimism. At last year’s show, the outlook for this year was a 2-percent decline in RV sales. Instead, the industry is up 11 percent.

The RVIA is billing rising shipments and industry growth as reasons to celebrate at this year’s trade show.

Keystone’s Zimmerman said, “Most dealers out there are pretty optimistic over the next year. Nobody has that perfect crystal ball. It went away in ‘08.” Still, he said, “We’re expecting growth, certainly next year we expect positive things.

“I think there’s certainly some pockets that are doing extremely well, but more encouraging, there doesn’t seem to be any one brand segment that’s dropping off.”

He continued, “RVing is a lifestyle, and people aren’t going to get out of it just because of economic conditions. This is what people do, they go camping.”

Growth is coming from the baby boomers, said Jayco’s Johnson, but also from the next generation. Their Jay Flight line is one of the hottest selling lines in the industry, he said, and “The average age for the buyer of that RV is 41,” he said.

Sales of light towable RVs have exceeded Jayco’s expectations, while at the other end, people are wanting more and more luxurious towable RVs to leave parked in one spot all summer, Johnson said. “Customers are always ahead of us, they’re smarter than we are.”

The motorhome segment of the industry has dropped significantly over the last two decades as the chassis for those models have seen surges in price, so luxury towables are becoming significant as the higher end of the market, even blurring the distinction between towable RVs and park-model units, Johnson said.

Gaeddert said the demographics of the RV lifestyle mean the industry’s significant growth is “a nice, sustainable rate. It’s not a bubble-type growth effect,” he said.

LOCAL MASTER OF CEREMONIES

At the helm of the RVIA’s board this year, Gaeddert will be playing a big role at the show, though he said most of his time will still be devoted to Forest River.

“I’m being pulled in a few different directions,” he said, but the RVIA staff, based in Virginia, has a lot of experience putting on the show.

“It’s an honor to be the chairman during an event like that, and a great show. Fiftieth anniversary year ... you hope that it’s one of those you never forget,” he said.

“The key as chairman of RVIA is that we continue to make that an improved product every year, just like I talk about our products as a manufacturer. That show is an event and the goal is to continue to make that event more invaluable, more polished and more meaningful to everybody every year, to raise that bar every single year,” he said.



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